Tomorrow is Christmas. Like many families, we will be attending Christmas Eve services tonight. At our church, College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, we will enjoy the family service with our oldest daughter, son-in-law, and two grandchildren. Later this evening my wife and I will sing in the College Church choir at two candlelight services.
We believe the story of Christmas is true. Santa Claus, reindeer, candy canes, packages and bows are all very nice and great fun. But the reason we celebrate Christmas —CHRISTmas — is because it recognizes the historical event that changed the course of human history. And the eternal future of every human being.
In 2016, my wife and I went to Israel on a tour sponsored by the Wheaton College Alumni Association. The trip was tremendous, emotional, exhilarating; I run out of adjectives to describe the impact it made on us. Yes, I understand that we cannot be certain that this or that holy site is exactly the place where this or that particular event in history took place. It is enough for me to know that this or that site has been considered to be an important place to commemorate significant events in the Bible, that pilgrims have worshipped there for centuries, and I am in the neighborhood where the events took place. Taking in the sights and sounds (and tastes!) of the land of the Bible changed us. I now view Christmas through the new lens of having been in the land “where Jesus walked.” Here is that story, taken from the Gospel of Luke (English Standard Version), with photos from our trip. This is a true story.
Entrance to the Orthodox Church of the Annunciation and Mary’s Well, Nazareth
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. he will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Fresco depicting the Angel Gabriel and Mary, Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, Nazareth
And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth [the mother of John the Baptist] in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.
Mary’s well, the traditional site of the Annunciation, Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, Nazareth
And Mary said “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.
Entrance to the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, the “Humility door,” so named because one must bow down to crawl through the opening.
In these days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the City of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
The traditional site of the birth of Jesus. The silver star has a hole in the middle through which pilgrims can reach down to touch the bedrock. Grotto, Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem.
And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
The traditional site of the manger where Jesus was laid after his birth. Grotto, Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem.
Sign to the traditional site of the Shepherds Fields. The sign is in Arabic; Bethlehem is located on the West Bank where many Arab Christians live.
And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
Entrance to a shepherd’s cave, Bethlehem.
Altar inside the shepherd’s cave, Bethlehem. Note the star mosaic inlaid on the floor in front of the altar.
Bronze door to the shepherd’s cave, Bethlehem.
And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear.
Bronze statue of an angel, above the entrance to the Franciscan Chapel of the Shepherds, Bethlehem.
A painting of the greeting of the angel to shepherds, Franciscan Chapel of the Shepherds, Bethlehem.
And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising god and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
A painting of the shepherds worshiping Jesus at his birth, Franciscan Chapel of the Shepherds, Bethlehem.
When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. and all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.
Sign at the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem. I have seen similar signs that quote verses from the Bible in many languages around the world.
There is much more to this story. This child, Jesus, changed the world. Our calendar revolves around his birth. He, the Son of God, begotten, not made, came to redeem sinful and fallen men and women. Like you and me. Christmas is about this: life, death, redemption, repentance, forgiveness. And Light. Are there any greater themes in history? I think not. It is my prayer that you know this Jesus, this one whom we celebrate in this season.
But who was this Jesus? C. S. Lewis, in his superb book Mere Christianity, starkly laid out the options, what we may think of Jesus Christ:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about [Jesus]: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God.”
That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice.
Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
I will have more to say about this, the next great climax of this story, around Easter. To be continued.